What is a Danish Manor?

Manors in the 20th Century


By Mikael Frausing, PhD, The Danish Research Centre for Manorial Studies


Over the centuries, Danish manor houses were a dominant economic and political power in society. Their significance waned in the 19th century, but it was not until the 20th century that the role of the manor houses as key social institutions came to a conclusive end.  What remained was the historic and cultural significance of the manor houses – and their continued adaptation to changing societal conditions, which meant both new challenges and new opportunities. At present, there is a fundamental dilemma between conservation and development. On one hand, the manor houses must be preserved as historic buildings, facilities, grounds and cultural environments; on the other hand, they have to keep abreast of the times as modern enterprises.  





The abolition of entailed estates has come to represent a turning point for Denmark’s manor houses. Even in the early 20th century, Denmark’s large estates were prosperous. The economy was flourishing, and politically, estate-owner governments had led the country for 35 years, the ladies and gentlemen were a natural part of the country’s elite, and the main buildings exuded splendour and wealth.

Counts’ estates, baronies and entailed estates still had special legal status, which dated back to the age of absolute monarchy. The abolition of entailed estates brought an end to this special status. In itself, this was a powerful blow to the self-image of the upper classes, which was only intensified by the fact that the owners were also ordered to pay huge taxes to the state. The country’s few remaining copyhold farms would now become freeholds. This symbolically underlined the fact that the traditional relationship between the gentility and subordinates was a thing of the past: the watchwords of the time were democracy and equality. Even though the abolition of entailed estates only affected a small number of the manor houses, in retrospect it was perceived as the definitive end of the age of manor houses.

The image was reinforced by the fact that the inter-war period was a period of decline for the manor houses. The combination of agricultural crisis and rising taxes meant difficult times: not least for the estates, who also had to say goodbye to large fortunes in the context of the abolition of entailed estates. As many as ⅓ of the largest estates had to be sold, and this contributed to the impression of doom and decay.



Modern Agriculture


However, the large estates remained important and significant businesses, both nationally and locally. They were part of the country’s most important business – farming – and the estate owner continued to be a leading figure in the local community. The situation picked up financially during the 1930s and, after World War II, the large estates led the way when it came to the technological transformation of agriculture. Specialisation and mechanisation meant that even large estates could be operated with just a few employees. The large teams of people, which hitherto had been a distinctive feature of the manor houses, disappeared. The manor houses were deserted and silent, and the role of the manor house as a setting for the life of many people was now outplayed.

Rationalisation in agriculture has continued to the present day. In a socio-economic perspective, the manor houses have become small-scale or medium-scale companies. Through acquisitions and mergers, everywhere full-time farms have grown in size, and today an ordinary manorial farm, which 100 years ago was the largest workplace in its region, is no larger than many other farms. Even the country’s largest estates enter into operational agreements with other estates in order to further rationalise operations.

The vast majority of the country’s manorial farms are still run along agricultural and forestry lines. Some have become specialists, for example in horticulture, while others maintain a more multi-faceted production. A new feature is that, in the past 10 years, some manor houses have established niche products, marketed under their own name and logo. They exploit the status and long history of the manor house to create a story that is added to the actual products, creating a positive manor house brand.



New Applications


However, there are also a significant number of manor houses, which in the course of the 20th century made a transition to new applications: museums, folk high schools, continuation schools, nursing homes, residences and other institutions. In the vast majority of cases, this resulted in the dissolution of the historic unity involving main building, grounds, home farm and landscape.

This development reflects the fact that the stately main buildings in many cases had become superfluous. As new ideals of democratic equality gained ground, and revenue from farming also came under pressure, many manorial families could not or did not want to maintain a ‘classic’ grand lifestyle, surrounded by servants. In many places, large main buildings, which were built in accordance with the ideals of a bygone age and lacked modern amenities, were abandoned. This was particularly the case if a family owned several manor houses, and where the running of the estate could be consolidated on one of the farms. When the main building of a manor house was relinquished as a residence, an obvious solution was to put it to other uses.

The rapid urban growth of the 20th century also meant that some manor houses gradually became enclosed and the manor’s fields were parcelled out as green areas or as residential neighbourhoods of detached houses. Today, in several provincial towns you can find former main buildings, which have been taken over by private or public institutions who needed more space: cultural centres, schools, nursing homes, museums or even local council offices.

When Hindsgavl Manor had to be sold in 1922, the local district council purchased the land and the forest, while the Norden Association purchased the main building and park and established a training centre. It would appear from a contemporary observer that the time was ripe for looking at the old main buildings as something other than the symbols of genteel wealth and power they had been in the past: “But modern times do not create the best conditions for the large ancient castles… In a way evolution has made them redundant. (…) But they must not vanish! They belong to the Danish landscape and they are a part of people’s lives. Therefore, they must be preserved for as long as possible. To maintain them simply as memories will probably prove untenable. So we should celebrate the fact that in many cases it has been possible to preserve them as homes for useful institutions.” (The magazine, Turisten, 1929)



Museums and Conservation


On one hand, the manor houses were out of step with the new era. On the other hand, the buildings, grounds and facilities had to be preserved. By the 20th century, the manor houses were history, so their very significance as a part of national culture and identity increased.

It is therefore not surprising, that turning manor houses into museums became an obvious solution for many abandoned estates. Some became actual manor house museums. The first was Gammel Estrup in 1930. But since then other manor house museums have been established throughout the country: Pederstrup (Lolland), Spøttrup (Salling), Sæbygaard (Vendsyssel), Selsø (Zealand), all of which are specialist museums dedicated to presenting the history of Danish manor houses. However, the desire to preserve abandoned main buildings can also lead to a new use as other types of museums, often dealing with local history. One particular category involves designing and fitting out the rooms of a manor house to commemorate well-known characters from the house or the region.

The 20th century’s awareness of the role of manor houses as important historical institutions has also made itself felt in huge efforts to preserve all the manor houses. It may seem paradoxical that the listing of manor houses first gained serious ground in the 1920s, almost simultaneously with the abolition of entailed estates. On reflection, though, the two developments can be regarded as interconnected. The divestment of manor houses as a social and economic reality was accompanied by a growing need to preserve them as buildings and history.

Since the 1920s, just about 300 main buildings have been listed or declared worthy of preservation. Farm buildings, grounds and landscape – a manor’s cohesive cultural environment – have received less attention and today remain highly vulnerable to a progressive decay.



The Interest in Manor Houses


The 1940s saw the publication of the comprehensive reference work, Danske Slotte og Herregårde [English: Danish Castles and Manor Houses], which contained meticulous descriptions of Denmark’s manor houses.  The work crystallised the status of the manor houses as national cultural heritage, but also contributed to the fact that academic interest in manor houses became strongly associated with the major families, the large main buildings and art history, while other aspects of their history were played down. The interest of people in general was huge, so a revised, 12-volume version was published in the 1960s.

The strong interest in manor houses after World War II was also reflected in novels, films and magazines. Popular writers such as Morten Korch or Ib Henrik Cavling used manor houses as romantic settings for stories, and the books were often adapted for the screen. The success was so overwhelming that by the 1960s you could refer to ‘manor house films’ as a special genre. Well-known examples included The Næsbygaard Trilogy’ and Baronessen fra Benzintanken [English: The Baroness from the Petrol Station].

Manor houses were also a favourite motif in magazine short stories and serials, but there was also a wealth of articles and ‘look inside’ features about the country’s manor houses. The media transformed the manor houses into icons of romance and luxury: on one hand, strange representatives of a bygone age; on the other, an object of fascination for a modern, democratic public.

While the interest in manor houses waned between 1970 and 1995, we have seen a revival of interest in the past 15-20 years. Manor houses are once again appearing extensively in magazines and films, and on TV: from features about historic gardens and modern manorial life to Danish TV’s annual Christmas advent calendar and the X Factor. Once again many books are being published about manor houses and manorial culture. The four-volume work, Herregården. Menneske – Samfund – Landskab – Bygninger [English: The Manor House. People – Society – Landscape – Buildings] has, in particular, contributed to an academic reorientation by placing manor houses in a broader, societal context.



Tourism and the Experience Economy


A new development in the 21st century has been the entrance of the manor houses on to the experience economy stage. Manor houses now receive visitors who get an opportunity to enter and experience the manor houses’ superb architecture and historic ambience. Those visitors include tourists, hotel guests, conference attendees, or people coming for parties, concerts, festivals, Christmas markets and lifestyle trade shows.

But tourism in manor houses is certainly no new phenomenon. Even before World War II, a handful of manor houses started to offer guided tours of their grounds and main buildings. These provisions were gradually expanded with cafés, souvenirs, mini museums, exotic animals and other activities. The classic guided tour with an emphasis on history and architecture continues, but can rarely be developed into a real line of business. Manor houses can exploit their grounds and buildings as a historical backdrop, but they also have to provide exciting, family-oriented activities.

You can experience ‘genuine manorial ambience’ in a number of manor house hotels in Denmark. There are many different options: ranging from huge, luxurious banquet and conference hotels to small manor house B&Bs. A romantic, weekend mini-break in a manor house provides a popular escape from everyday life, but the large halls and numerous rooms in the main buildings can also be used as a setting for seminars and conferences, which call for professionalism. The architecture of manor houses is perfect for celebration and conviviality. Today, many manor houses specialise in ‘castle weddings’ in the experience market. Acting out the dream of a ‘real princess wedding’ perpetuates the widespread conception of a manor house as a setting for romance and luxury.

Finally, throughout the year manor houses organise a number of public events. At the popular Christmas markets, exhibitors pay to set up their stalls, while the manor house provides the perfect historical environment for cosy, old-fashioned Christmas. At other times of the year the programme features lifestyle trade shows, concerts, historical festivals and open-house events. These events generate income for the running of the manor houses, while for the visitors, the manor house becomes a social gathering point in the local area.

In the experience economy manor houses deploy their buildings, grounds and cultural milieus as a commercial resource to attract visitors. With traditional agriculture and forestry under pressure and with the huge maintenance costs for historic buildings, many manor houses are looking for new ways of making money. Public activities enable more people than ever before to experience manor houses. However, running them as hotels, for example, also entails necessary changes to buildings and facilities and leads to more wear and tear.

So the manor houses are caught between two stools: preservation and renovation. As historic, often listed buildings, the manor houses must preserve their buildings and cultural environments to the greatest extent possible, but they also need to keep up with the times and develop their business activities to accommodate new patterns of consumption.